North Korea has employed its diplomatic staff to procure illegal weapons shipments as one of an increasingly complex set of methods used by the reclusive nation to bypass international sanctions, according to a report by the United Nations.
The report, compiled by a panel of eight U.N. experts advising the U.N. Security Council, is part of an annual investigation into North Korea’s compliance with wide-ranging U.N. sanctions imposed in response to Pyongyang’s illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs.
It said that North Korean embassies have assisted a complex network of foreign companies in organizing illegal shipments of weapons to Pyongyang, including its missions in Singapore and Cuba, which it alleged were behind a delivery of Cuban fighter jets and missile parts seized from a North Korean cargo ship in Panama in July.
“Evidence found on the ship pointed to involvement of [North Korea] embassy staff in Cuba,” the report said, citing contact phone numbers and records in the captain’s log from the Chong Chon Gang vessel.
The ship was seized by Panamanian authorities on July 16 for smuggling arms, including two MiG-21 jet fighters. Havana acknowledged after the seizure that it had sent Soviet-era weapons to North Korea to be repaired and returned to Cuba.
One North Korean document, addressed to the ship’s captain and included in the report, offered instructions on how to conceal the equipment and make a false declaration to customs officers in Panama.
“Load the containers first and load the 10,000 tons of sugar (at the next Port) over them so that the containers cannot be seen,” said the document, translated from Korean.
Those notes led the panel to conclude that “[North Korean] embassy officials in Havana were engaged in making arrangements for the shipment of the consignment of arms and related materiel, including the payment methods.”
The report said that Chinpo Shipping Company is “co-located” with the North Korean Embassy in Singapore and that Chinpo had acknowledged that it was acting as shipping agent in Singapore for a Pyongyang-based company that operated the Chong Chon Gang.
According to a report by the Reuters news agency, a North Korean Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity denied that the Singapore mission had engaged in any wrongdoing, adding that the embassy had recently moved from the address listed in the report.
The U.N. panel said that the use of embassy staff was among a number of methods used by North Korea to evade detection of illegal shipments in violation of sanctions.
It cited measures “pioneered by drug-trafficking organizations” that made tracking North Korea’s purchase of prohibited goods more difficult, as well as a complex “corporate ecosystem” of overseas companies and individuals that helped Pyongyang conceal its financial and trade dealings.
“From the incidents analyzed in the period under review, the Panel has found that [North Korea] makes increasing use of multiple and tiered circumvention techniques,” the report said.
The panel—made up of experts from China, Japan, South Korea, and the U.S.—said that it had found “no signs that [North Korea] intends to respond to the Security Council’s calls to abandon its nuclear, ballistic missile and other weapons of mass destruction programs.”
“On the contrary, it is persisting with its arms trade and other prohibited activities in defiance of Security Council resolutions, while activities related to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs continue.”
But it said that Panama’s seizing of the Chong Chon Gang had proved that member states of the U.N. Security Council “already have at their disposal adequate tools” to dissuade the North from engaging in proliferation activities and to halt its trade in arms and related material.
It did not suggest new measures, but instead recommended that the implementation of existing sanctions “should be significantly improved,” noting that part of the difficulty concerning enforcement results from many countries lacking awareness and understanding of the resolutions.
Many of the countries tasked with enforcing the sanctions also don’t pay enough attention to basic measures such as cargo inspection and denial of entry into ports, the panel said.
Among methods it proposed to address the shortcomings of current enforcement, the panel called on all Security Council member states to promptly report all instances of inspections of cargo to, from, or brokered by North Korea, as required by active sanctions, even when no prohibited items are found.
It also recommended that the U.N. Security Council Committee draw the attention of all member states' authorities and members of the shipping industry to the concealment techniques employed in the Chong Chon Gang incident.
“[This case] demonstrates the importance of applying rigorous due diligence to verify the content of cargo originating from or destined to [North Korea], the validity of documents presented and the identities of all entities and individuals involved,” it said.
The panel also called on member states to review their agreements with North Korea, particularly those involving military-to-military cooperation, as they might contain terms inconsistent with arms and related material measures imposed by Security Council resolutions.